A Northwestern Medicine study noted an initiative online HIV prevention program that includes interactive games and spicy soap operates led to a 40 percent decline of sexually transmitted infections in gay men.
Brian Mustanski, the study’s lead author, said the program has a huge effect, as it was thought that number would be around 20 percent.
It’s the first online HIV prevention program that has demonstrated the effects on a biological result, which targeted gay men between the ages of 18 and 29. This is the group with the highest HIV infection rate in the U.S. According to the results, the online program promoting safe sex has been extremely effective in this age group.
The CDC said the young men are just two percent of the nation’s young people, but make up 70 percent of the HIV diagnosis. In fact, they are 44 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than any other men.
Mustankski said the numbers are disturbing. He said without any kind of intervention, a quarter of gay Latino men and half of gay black men will be diagnosed with HIV.
According to Mustanski, previous studies that used the eHealth HIV prevention programs were using self-reports to determine how effective they were. However, since people are fallible, a biological result is deemed more reliable.
The study can be seen in the June 28 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Mustanski and others created the “Keep It Up!” program, which involved more than 900 participants from New York City, Chicago and Atlanta. There was a 40 percent drop among those who used the “Keep It Up!” program, especially in the areas of gonorrhea and chlamydia for 12 months.
The standard HIV prevention program focuses on the transmission facts of HIV and how to properly use a condom. However, the “Keep It Up!” program is focused on young gay men’s lives and adds in the HIV prevention information with their experiences.
The program’s modules focus on a certain setting that these men could face including dating and beginning a new relationship. Another module talks about drug and alcohol use and bars. In this situation, they were taught why they should avoid using substances in sexual circumstances and how to decrease the risk of STIs when using substances.
The men played interactive games that examined the different sexual behaviors, allowing them to rate the risk. The game lets them know if they were right or wrong.
Mustanski said the game allows them to see what things they could do that would be pleasurable but wouldn’t increase their risk.
The young men were tracked through a soap opera where they made assumptions about their partners. Mustanksi said one guy believed the man he was dating was being monogamous when, in fact, his partner was going out with different people.
He said most of the HIV transmissions in this group happens to men in serious relationships, which is why it’s imperative they talk about the status of their relationship and that both people get tested for STIs like HIV.
Many of the participants said the games and soap opera helped them learn a lot.
One said he didn’t think about his own behavior until watching the soap opera. He was judging the characters for their actions when he released he was doing the same things they were.
Another participant said it encouraged him to get tested, which he was afraid to do for years because of what the result could have been. He said “Keep It Up!” gave him the courage to get tested.
Mustanski said he hopes a grant will be provided to implement the program in all 50 states. He said putting it on the website isn’t enough. Mustanski said there has to be a cost-effective way in which to spread word about it in the community and reach those most at risk for STDs.
There are currently 59 HIV-related interventions of which just two target gay men. Mustanski said the programs for gay men don’t need to be simple alterations to those created for heterosexual men, as the challenges both groups face are different. Gay men often feel alone and have no support networks.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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